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This too is Pakistani Literature

Updated August 09, 2013

-Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star
-Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star

In Pakistani literature, an undeclared, wordless apartheid has been practiced against progressive literature, or what is known the world over as engaged literature. Consequently, in most books of literary criticism, references to engaged literature are conspicuous by their absence, unless a work is open to some other interpretation such as lyricism, imagism, surrealism or even structuralism, a comparatively new entrant in the jargon of our Urdu literati.

Literature — both poetry and fiction — that talks of the real life around us, the plight of the people, their aspirations and national traumas, has been avoided like the plague. It has been assumed that it would be either against the ideology of Pakistan or Islam, or both, the two being inseparably intertwined in the minds of our anxiety-riddled literary critics.

Going through Urdu literary criticism, one is amazed to notice that compared to other poets, little attention has been paid to the works of even a great celebrity like Faiz Ahmed Faiz; a critic may apply his mind to the imagery in Faiz’s poems, the structure of his lines, but never the message. If you are a writer producing work that simply refuses to be ambiguous and which is hard to fit into a slot of impressionism, symbolism, cubism et al, rest assured your work will not be touched by a barge pole by any critic worth his salt.

Engaged literature is certainly not without remarkable literary worth. But it needs a fresh and imaginative approach and intellectual courage to elicit those literary values and present them to the readers to enhance appreciation and enjoyment of this literature. The Urdu critic does not dare venture into this untrodden territory.

I, myself, am one of the writers who have never been mentioned in Urdu criticism. I have been writing since 1967 when my first collection of verses, Pathar ki Zuban, was published, but you will not find my name in any critical book or article, or any reference to my works in any volume of literary criticism in Urdu. My work reflects Pakistan, in all its positive and negative developments that influence the lives of the people and mirror the new country. Since no one else is likely to attempt summing up my literary oeuvre I have decided to write about it, if only to make a minor correction in this lopsided record of Pakistani literature.

That a young woman of the sharif middle-class could sing of love in her own voice, without pretending to be a man, as was customary in Urdu in the past, reflects the liberation that women and young girls of the middle classes achieved in Pakistan, having migrated from the land of their forefathers and broken the shackles of traditions that made poetry the sole prerogative of men.

Poetry concerned itself with love between men and women, (or men and men) and only men among themselves, indulged in this intellectual luxury. For a young woman to uninhibitedly write love poetry could only be possible in this new homeland.

My second offering, Badan Dareeda, celebrated female sexuality and mourned its suppression and mutilation by social compulsions. In our subcontinent and the Urdu tradition, this too was a specifically Pakistani phenomenon. The verses in both the volumes were written in the decade of the ’60s and are indicative of that era in Pakistan when, after a long spell of Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s martial law, a new class of young men and women was emerging and confronting the old order of intellectual passivity.

My first poem reflected the political reality of Pakistan and was about being an immigrant. This was the status of the Urdu-speaking people in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, where they had to face and handle the resentment of the old inhabitants of the land as slogans of 'Jiye Sindh' resounded and Sindhi nationalism turned into a strong political force. I chose to join in the just aspirations of the Sindhi people in a poem written like a prayer, or a Vedic incantation. The poem is addressed to the River Sindhu, sadly reflecting upon the blind forces sweeping people away in their fury and scattering them over lands unknown to them. It addresses the river:

May you live forever River Sindhu Give us the nectar of life Give us the ability to strike roots at your bed Long live River Sindhu And long may live your land, Sindh Of soft sands and fertile fields You are our Nourisher, Protector of Land, Provider of Grains May you live forever!

The rest of my work explores the events and ambience of Pakistan as I saw it since the days of Z.A. Bhutto. The notorious line,

It is difficult to find a man to love in this wasteland was a comment on the spineless cajolery and mindless adoration exhibited by the Pakistani intelligentsia towards a political leader who had no respect for democratic institutions.

When Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim, playing upon the word paighambar (messenger), I wrote:

They want to ensure that no new message reaches the dishonoured beggars in the lanes of this city

During those years filled with the darkest forebodings, when a rally of the opposition in Rawalpindi was fired upon for four hours, I wrote:

Let us dance, The dance of rage and wounded dignity, The dance of grief and lost hopes. Tear apart this garment of expediency that conceals your real brave self.

It was also during those years that a major army operation was carried out in Balochistan. I wrote a passionate poem against it, warning the powers that be:

To speak the truth, Let us see if we have the mettle, The pen of time is writing the final verdict of history. On these mountains, lest we do not know, Whether we concede it or not, it is our own blood that we are spilling.

The overthrow and subsequent hanging of Z.A. Bhutto did not herald better times. Rather, it threw Pakistan into an abyss of ignominy, bigotry and military terror, with tanks stationed on the roads and people publicly whipped for offences like shouting a slogan. During those long, dark years (unfortunately, it grows darker here every now and then), my verses focused on what was happening in the country. The custodial murder of Nazeer Abbasi, a political worker, the summary military courts, the body-search of passengers in buses, became the themes of my poems. My long poem, ‘Kia Tum Poora Chand Na Daikhogey?’ (Will you not look at the full moon with its scars), consists of seven chapters. It is a narrative of the hopes, despair and struggle of the Pakistani people. These poems were written between 1978 and 1988.

This corpus also includes the pain of exile that many Pakistanis had to suffer during that era, and my exposure to India, my host country, that brought me a new realisation of the beauty and wisdom, as well as the tangled communal issues still unresolved in that sprawling homeland of my ancestors. My poem, ‘Purva Anchal,’ is based on a Buddhist theory of conflict and its resolution.

In a conclusive victory, both sides must win equally.

After my return from a seven-year exile in India, I increasingly turned towards prose and the result were three novels, Zinda Bahar, Godavri and Karachi.

Zinda Bahar is based in Bangladesh, picking up threads of its secession from Pakistan and the trauma for Pakistanis of accepting it as a foreign country. Godavri is based in India and interprets the social and communal conflicts in post-Partition India as the backdrop of the creation of Pakistan and brings out the nature of conflict in this vast multi-ethnic, multi-religious subcontinent. Karachi, comprising of little stories of the inhabitants of this bustling metropolis, traces the rise and enduring popularity of the MQM, and explores the city’s class composition and characteristics. All these developments are seen contextually and the destructive role of the Pakistani establishment is clearly underscored. As Faiz said: